A Henney Story
By Louis C. Farah
With Special thanks to Thomas A. McPherson.
The Henney Motor Company started life as a carriage and buggy builder in the late 1800’s. As the automobile began to take shape in the early part of the 20th Century, the company operated as the John W. Henney Company. Their first venture into the motorized funeral car began in 1916. Building on an assembled chassis with a six-cylinder Continental engine, Henney was located in Freeport, Illinois.
By the early 1920s, the Henney name was among America’s best known in the funeral car trade. In the decade that followed, the company produced limousine and sedan passenger cars to custom order, as well as a production run of 50 sport phaetons in the early 20s that were designed by Herman Earl. He later worked for Des Moines Casket Company, and finally ended up in Piqua, Ohio with the Meteor Motor Car Company where he worked for almost 25 years up to his retirement. The Henney passenger cars were, like the Henney hearses, powered by six-cylinder Continental or eight-cylinder Lycoming engines.
The funeral coaches built by Henney in 1926 coaches included stylish cycle fenders and shortened running boards with integral step plates beneath each door. Options included a choice of a single side-entrance attendant’s door or an extra-wide double side door that allowed easy access for a gurney or casket. More expensive coaches featured landau-bars, spot-lights and stylish Gordon spare tire covers and offered customers the choice of a Meritas-covered body or an all metal-skin body sprayed with Dupont’s new DUCO lacquer. The 1926 catalog displayed Henney’s popular 7-passenger landau sedan-ambulance as well as their new Light Six line which was designed to compete with the Mort and other low-priced coaches.
The name of the business was changed to the Henney Motor Company in 1927 and shortly thereafter John W. Henney Jr. sold his interest in the firm roughly a year before the stock market crash in 1929. During his absence, the Henney Motor Co. produced 100 taxicabs on stretched Model A Ford chassis as well as their normal professional car line. They also supplied 3-piece ash roof rails to Ford, who used the sub-assemblies on the 1929 Model A Fordor body framework.
From the late twenties until the adoption of the Packard chassis in 1937, Henney frequently mixed-n-matched chassis and engines from different manufacturers. Chassis used in varying amounts during this period included Stephens (one assembled in their factory using a Continental motor); Velie/Buick/Auburn (using Lycoming motors); Pierce Arrow/Reo (a special car marketed by National Casket); Pontiac economy model and the Oldsmobile Progress Model. In addition, they occasionally built a hearse or an ambulance on a chassis specified and/or supplied by the customer. This could have been a Cadillac, LaSalle, Rolls Royce, Lincoln, Cord and others.
In 1927, Henney introduced the NU-3-Way coach, a funeral car equipped with a three-way casket table patented by Los Angeles inventor, William H. Heise. Very similar to Eureka’s, the Heise table could be loaded from either side or from the rear. A bronze Heise tag can be found on the table framework of Henney’s 3-way coaches.
Mr. Henney was repelled by the way hearses had to be backed up to the curb for loading, which he thought was very undignified. The 3-way idea was developed by Heise, but Ed Richter perfected it. The 3-way feature added about $100.00 to the price of the car but Henney did very well with it. Henney was soon selling more than half the 3-ways in the industry, and they sold side-servicing equipment, including the mound, track and carrier to some of their competitors.
The Henney Deluxe line continued mostly unchanged as did their lower-priced Light-Six models which were easily distinguishable by their old-fashioned artillery wheels. Henney coaches were offered with either a leather-back landau roof or a plain painted metal roof treatment. As always, plain, frosted, leaded or combination frosted/leaded windows were available on all of their coaches.
In 1928 Henney was awarded a government contract to supply 23 ambulances to the United States Veterans Bureau (now the Veterans Administration) for use at their medical facilities. In the same year, the NU-3-Way funeral coach featured prominently in their print advertising. This side-loading coach featured a Heise casket table that extended out 36″ from either side of the vehicle and allowed easy loading and unloading of the casket. Previous side-loading coaches had small rollers inlaid into the floor that allowed bearers to slide the casket around. The Heise 3-way table allowed the casket to be firmly attached to the vehicle eliminating all chance of a mishap that could occur during inclement weather or on hilly streets. You could also load it from the rear if the coach was equipped with a back door.
The 1929 Henney line featured a re-designed chassis with swept front fenders plus a longer and lower body with incredibly wide front and rear doors specially designed to take full advantage of their Heise 3-way tables. Henney claimed that the wide pillar-less door opening could support over 1500 lbs. at its center. Heavy wrought-iron bracing placed within the strong ash-framing made it possible.
During that year, Henney launched what amounted to a smear campaign against Eureka, Sayers & Scovill, Meteor and Silver-Knightstown falsely accusing them of marketing side-servicing coaches built with bootleg casket tables. Ads that appeared in the nations funeral and mortuary magazines falsely stated that Henney was the exclusive licensee of the patented Heise casket table. In 1930 Eureka, Meteor and Sayers & Scovill filed suit against Henney and eventually won an injunction against them. In a year when they could ill afford it, Henney’s victims’ business suffered, while Henney’s prospered.
As a direct result of their attack on Eureka, Henney won a contract to supply REO-chassised coaches to the National Casket Company who had just canceled their contract with Kissel because Eureka supplied Kissel with their funeral coach bodies.
Having survived the stock market crash of 1929 with his cash reserves intact, John W. Henney Jr. easily regained control of the company in 1930 and soon conceived a high-priced luxury car similar to the L-29 of his good friend, Errett Lobban Cord. The magnificent convertible sedan that resulted was powered by a Lycoming straight-eight engine and set on Henney’s 137 wheelbase chassis. Only four examples were built and all were sold to Henney’s friends and large customers. 1930 and 1931 Henneys rode on a purpose-built chassis that closely resembled that of the auto industry’s style leader, Cadillac. Their ambulances were advertised as being completely equipped, and their NU-3-Way side-loading coaches were racking up sales at the expense of their competition. In addition to the frosted/leaded/beveled or plain rear quarter-window options, new interior window treatments were avail-able as well and included wicker window inserts, mini-blinds or airline-style draperies.
Henney offered the industry’s first electric-powered casket table in 1932 which was designed by William H. Heise, the designer of the original 3-way table. A centrally located motor was placed under the casket frame in a specially designed hump or “mound” that could be operated from either side of the vehicle using switches imbedded in the compartment walls. The “electric” option was available on select Henney and National-REO NU-3-Way coaches.
The company introduced beaver-tail styling to their coach bodies in 1933. By 1934 they had abandoned assembly of their own chassis and were building on Cadillac, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Packard and Pierce-Arrow chassis. Less expensive models were built primarily on Oldsmobile chassis during the mid-1930s and were designated as Henney Progress coaches. Heise’s electric 3-way casket table was marketed as the “Elecdraulic” and was standard equipment on a few high-priced NU-3-Way coaches. The Henny Arrowline was introduced in 1934 and was built exclusively on Pierce-Arrow chassis. Unfortunately, Pierce-Arrow went bankrupt during the 1937-1938 model year, so Henney looked to Packard to furnish chassis for their high-priced coaches. By the end of 1935 Henney introduced the popular Henney 800 series that was built on a Packard 120A chassis.
The Funeral Auto Company of Louisville, Kentucky purchased eight identical Arrowline funeral coaches during 1936. Funeral Auto Co. were just one of the many funeral livery services across the country that rented out hearses and limousines to metropolitan funeral directors who either couldn’t afford to own one, or didn’t have the room to park these huge coaches at their place of business. As it is today, hearses are an extra-cost item in most funeral services and can be rented as needed by smaller funeral homes. In large cities like New York City, the cost of parking a large coach can quickly exceed its cost, so funeral and limousine livery services remain popular to this day. Henney also built a handful of 1935 and 1936 coaches on stretched Auburn chassis. Henny Arrowlines were built from 1934 to 1937.
By 1936 both Packard and General Motors were offering extended-wheelbase commercial chassis to the professional car industry. The Packard chassis was based on their successful 120 Series while General Motor’s were offered by their Buick, Cadillac, LaSalle and Oldsmobile divisions. Consequently all Henney coaches were built on purpose-built Oldsmobile and Packard commercial chassis from 1936 onward. 1937 was the final year for Henney Progress Oldsmobile coaches as Henney made a permanent switch to the Packard chassis in 1938 and would remain with them until their demise in 1954.
At the 1937 National Funeral Director’s Convention, Henney introduced a stream-lined flower car as well as a self-leveling suspension system that they called the Leveldraulic. The flower car was built on a Packard chassis, featured a collapsible convertible top and could be used as a first call car or to transport altars, chairs and other necessities to the home of the deceased or to the grave site. The complex Leveldraulic system used a number of electric motors and hydraulic pumps and actuators to assist in leveling the coach while the casket was being loaded or unloaded on hills and uneven road-ways. The manually operated system could also be used to level an uneven load and was available on both Henney funeral coaches and ambulances.
“Weather-Conditioner” air conditioning appeared on Henney ambulances for the first time in late 1938. Developed by their new partner Packard, the mechanical system included a huge evaporator, called a ‘cooling coil,’ which took up most of the equipment cabinet that separated the driver from the rear compartment. This cumbersome AC system lacked a compressor clutch and could only be controlled with the blower speed switch. The horsepower-sapping pump was on whenever the engine was running and the only way to turn it off was to remove the drive belt to the compressor. Packard started installing the system in on production Packards in 1939 advertising that purchasers would “Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world”.
Late in 1939, Henney proclaimed that the current years production of 1200 vehicles was the largest number of funeral cars and ambulances ever produced by one company in a single year. To celebrate their record, a commemorative booklet titled “The Story of the 1200th Henney-Packard Produced during 1939” was distributed to the firm’s distributors and employees. Another entitled “Program Of Progress” followed in 1940.
In that same year the company offered a Formal Limousine model. This limousine-style hearse featured art-deco metal shields featuring the owner’s name mounted on all three rear compartment doors. When equipped with Henney’s Leveldraulic suspension and Elecdraulic NU-3-Way casket table, this coach was the most technologically advanced hearse available this year. Long wheel-base airport limousines were in great demand during the late 1930s and Henney built a number of 8-door (4-doors per side) using extended-wheelbase Packard chassis.
They also introduced a Landaulet funeral coach this year that was its answer to the landau-style coaches offered by their competition. The Landaulet was a dedicated side-servicing coach and was available in town car or enclosed drive versions. Henney styling had evolved slowly but surely during the late 1930s and the Landaulet hearse featured a rather dramatic roofline complemented by its shortened side windows built exclusively for the Landaulet. It’s padded Bur-bank-covered top and large landau bar gave it the appearance of an expensive four-door convertible sedan. In Landau-let town cars, the divider panel was hinged in the middle, allowing the casket easy access to rear compartment when the driver’s seat was slid forward. Most other 1939 Henney coaches featured a more conventional rear roofline with an integral rear door.
Introduced in 1939, a very unusual “Super Formal” coach featured a slightly heart-shaped window that was used in place of the standard Henney side compartment glass. A picture exists that shows a 1939 Henney Super Formal Town Car Hearse on a Packard Super Eight chassis with a Manning nameplate on the front doors. The 1940 catalog shows a regular (non-town car) Super Formal Coach although no pictures of the vehicle exist and it may never have been built.
Henney flower cars were mildly redesigned in 1940 and were available painted, or with a Burbank-covered faux-convertible roof. Access to the casket compartment was through small side doors located behind the driver’s door or through the tailgate which had built-in casket rollers that matched those on the compartment floor. The height of the stainless steel flower deck was hydraulically adjustable so that different-sized floral tributes could be accommodated and a tonneau cover was included to cover the bed when not in use. Henney also manufactured a small number of sedan-ambulances using standard Packard limousines with a removable B-pillar that could accept a gurney through the passenger-side doors as well as a few multi-door airport limousines built using stretched sedan chassis. New this year was Henney’s graveside jukebox, the “Singing Chapel On Wheels”. A compact record player/amplifier installed under the right-side instrument panel, it included two remote speakers located under the hood and could provide music during the graveside ceremony.
Packard introduced their new stream-lined Clipper during the spring of 1941 just as Cadillac introduced their new redesigned Series 60 and 62 models. However the Clipper had to wait until the after the war before placed in service underneath Henney coaches. All pre-war 1940s Packard-Henney coaches were built using the older Series 120, 160 and 180 chassis although some Clipper-influenced styling made its way onto the older chassis by 1942. Henney was the largest professional car builder in the country yet only managed to produce 300 vehicles before the firm turned to war production work early in the year.
Civil Defense vehicles were in short supply at the start of the war and Henney filled the void with a number of attractive vehicles purpose-built for domestic service. Henney deserves credit for being the first professional-car manufacturer to produce a modern modular-styled ambulance body. Built on a Packard chassis, the extra-wide box-back ambulance included room for four patients and was painted with an art-deco paint scheme that integrated beautifully with the cross-shaped windows. Later versions included black-out trim and just like today’s retired modular ambulances, the boxy Civil Defense Henneys were popular as used work-trucks during the late Forties and early Fifties.
John W. Henney, owner of the Henney Motor Company, son and namesake of the firms founder, died in Freeport, Illinois on November 26, 1946 and the family sold the firm to C. Russell Feldmann, a millionaire businessman whose original claim to fame was 1927’s Transitone radio, one of the first units designed for mobile use exclusively for installation in an automobile. The Transitone was not only bulky, but costly ($150) and initial sales were well below expectations. However, by 1930 the radio’s bulk had been greatly reduced and sales had increased to the point where the radio giant Philco became interested in Feldmann’s Automobile Radio Corporation, purchasing it in December of 1930.
Feldmann gave Henney immediate access to large amounts of capital that was previously unavailable, strengthening their already healthy position in the industry as well as their relationship with Packard. The firm’s acquisition coincided with an agreement to manufacture Packard’s new 7-passenger limousine and 8-door 15-passenger airport limousines which were both in great demand immediately after the war. Production finally exceeded demand in mid-1947 and Henney re-tooled in preparation for production of their brand-new 1948 coaches that were unveiled at the 1947 National Funeral Director’s Convention. Contrary to popular belief, Henney only built Packard limousines for the 1946-47 model year. 1948-50 Packard limousines were built by Briggs as Henney was too busy building hearses and ambulances to do any extra contract work, even for Packard, an important business partner.
The 1946-47 Henney-Packard seven-passenger sedans were also sold as combination cars, built for use as either a conventional limousine, or a side-loading invalid car or sedan ambulance. The right front seat is removable and the passenger side B-pillar is designed to either stay on the car or come away with the door, enabling a wheeled cot to enter from the right side.
Henney’s all-new 1948 coaches were powered by a 160 horsepower straight-8 engine built on Packard’s new 158″ wheelbase commercial chassis. Packard’s 22nd series “inverted bathtub” styling was controversial and Henney’s prices were expensive, yet they produced close to 2,000 coaches in 1948 and were once again the largest professional car manufacturer in the world. In order to provide adequate interior headroom and maneuverability for the casket and gurney using the new Clipper bodies, Henney was forced to section the body in order to raise it by a couple of inches. A consequent extra row of teeth was also added to the bottom of the new egg crate grill, a similar system to that used by Flxible to match their coaches with the Buick chassis.
Funeral coaches were available with either NU-3-Way side-servicing or dedicated rear-loading versions. Ambulances, hearses and combination coaches were all available in either straight limousine styles or with a textured landau roof over the blanked-in rear quarter windows. Combination coaches were only available as rear-loaders, but could be changed from a funeral coach to an ambulance by simply snapping in the ambulance badge on the inside of the rear quarter windows, unfolding the attendant’s jump seat, and placing a removable Federal beacon on the roof. All of the pre-war options remained including air-conditioning, leveldraulic suspension, elecdraulic 3-way casket tables. and the “Singing Chapel On Wheels”. Ambulances could be ordered with an illuminated rooftop “ambulance” sign, pod-shaped warning lights and a choice of sirens.
Henney’s flower car was clearly the most beautiful of its brand-new 1948 professional cars. Standard equipment included a stainless-lined casket compartment as well as an all stainless flower deck topside. As with most other flower cars, a body-colored folded faux-cabriolet top was built onto the rear of the flower deck. A conservative-looking service car was also offered that used the limousine-style body with all the windows blanked-in.
In 1950, Henney was awarded a special contract to build a fleet of nine custom-built, long-wheelbase Lincoln Cosmopolitans for the Truman White House. The contract stipulated that the coaches be armored by Henney’s competitor, the Hess & Eisenhardt Company of Rossmoyne, Ohio, as they were the only armoring firm “approved” by the federal government.
Entering government service with the convertible that became the “bubbletop,” these armored Lincolns were primarily used during the Truman and Eisenhower years, and at least one survives. It is on display in the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Mr. Truman’s home town, Independence, Missouri.
A great influence on the postwar Henney designs was their designer, Richard Arbib. In the late 1930’s, Arbib began his career working with Harley Earl as a consultant to GM Styling. After a stint in WWII, his penchant and talent for car design brought Arbib to the Henney Auto-mobile Company. His creativity reached new levels with the beautiful 1951 Packard Caribbean and the beautiful 1951-1954 Henney-Packards professional cars. Henney converted a 1951 Packard 250 convertible into the Pan American show car for Packard to display at the 1952 New York Auto Show. It was an instant hit and eventually saw production as the Packard Caribbean from 1953-1954.
After an absence of four years, Packard reentered the long-wheelbase limousine business in 1953, offering a 149-inch wheelbase Eight-Passenger Sedan and a Corporate Limousine whose bodies were built by Henney. Only 150 were built in 1953, including 100 eight passenger sedans and 50 limousines. Even fewer were built for 1954, (65 sedans and 35 limos) and the limousine ended production that year.
Henney built a prototype Packard “Super Station Wagon” in 1953-54. Built using a long-wheelbase Packard professional car chassis and a Henney ambulance body, it included four center opening side doors, Henney’s distinctive curved rear quarter windows plus a fourth side window inserted into the C-pillar exclusive to the Super Station Wagons.
In 1953 and 1954 Henney offered a budget-priced short-wheelbase companion to their long wheelbase professional cars called the “Junior”. In order to keep down it’s price, the Junior’s chassis, unlike that of the Senior, was from the budget Packard series and the interior trim was made from cheaper materials. Henney was well into the production of the Junior before it realized that they were losing money on every Junior built and instituted a huge price increase that effectively killed the model. Total production of the appropriately-named Henney Junior’s totaled 500, 380 in 1953 and only 120 in 1954. A substantial number of the 1953 coaches were sold to the US Government at a loss, a fact that helped contribute to Henney’s already-poor financial picture.
The Junior was awkward-looking at best. A window between the side door and the rear quarter window would have helped the car’s looks immensely. An-other factor that hurt the car was its rear compartment length, which looked good measured at the floor, but translated into a less than ideal length at the beltline because of the angle of the rear of the body and the amount of floor length that ran under the top of the front seatback.
Stiff competition from emerging budget coach producers in Indiana and Tennessee doomed the project, and Packard’s cancellation of their long-wheelbase chassis for the 1955 model year doomed the full-sized coaches as well. Although in the early years Henney’s exclusive association with Packard took the company to impressive heights well above it’s competition, it was the same association that doomed the company in the end. With the end of the Packard commercial chassis came the end of Henney as a funeral car builder.
If not for one particular person, the Henney story may not have ever been so thoroughly detailed and recorded. Noted author and historian Thomas A. McPherson amassed an incredible amount of material on the Henney company including their history, and most importantly, hundreds of crisp, clear factory photo-graphs of Henney vehicles. He recently published a hard-bound book entitled, The Henney Motor Company, The Complete History. It is the definitive history of not only Henney, but Packard-based professional cars. Mr. McPherson’s extensive personal knowledge and photos were the basis of this article, and his book is available through a variety of sources including Amazon, eBay, professionalcar.org and most automotive book outlets. It is a must for every professional car enthusiasts, along with McPherson’s complete histories on Eureka, Flxible, Superior and Miller-Meteor. Each book contains the complete history of each company including production numbers, model descriptions, and hundreds of factory photographs.
Professional Car Collector Magazine and Professionalcar.org wishes to express our gratitude and thanks to Thomas A. McPherson for his contributions, both to this article and the professional car hobby in general. Without his knowledge, expertise and resources, very little would be known and documented in regards to the many manufacturers of professional cars.
Reprinted with permission from the July 2010 Issue of the “Professional Car Collector” magazine. The official publication of Professional Cars International. PCI Club Information can be found HERE.
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